The lovely photograph above (one of many exquisite photos taken by photographer, Phil Douglis) is of Karen Blixen’s desk at her farm in Kenya. Today I finished reading Out of Africa. It took me six weeks to read it because I did exactly what Francine Prose suggested in her book, Reading Like a Writer:
“With so much reading ahead of you, the temptation might be to speed up. But in fact it’s essential to slow down and read every word.”
And reading every word in a book like Out of Africa is an amazing experience and pleasure.
The book is written as a series of stories. Dinesen’s tales are of the people, the animals, the land itself, and the relationships of each with the other to form the sensitively detailed landscape of the Africa she knew and loved. She was my grandmother’s age. Some of what she described from that colonial time may be uncomfortable for today’s reader, and one must remember “time and place.” But her passionate descriptions help us understand the attitudes and happenings of her time. The rest of the book is timeless, eternally young, and so intricately described that we are transported to that place and are able to see and hear and smell the world of her farm in Africa.
My favorite chapter in the book was called “Wings.” This was where she revealed, without ever saying so directly, her deep love for Denys Finch-Hatton, which was inexorably intertwined with her passion for Africa. A pilot, he took her flying. And through her eyes and pen, the view of Africa from the sky was breathtaking:
“The sky was blue, but as we flew from the plains in over the stony and bare lower country, all colour seemed to be scorched out of it. The whole landscape below us looked like delicately marked tortoise-shell. Suddenly in the midst of it was the lake. The white bottom, shining through the water, give it, when seen from the air, a striking, an unbelievable azure-colour, so clear that for a moment you shut your eyes at it; the expanse of water lies in the bleak tawny land like a big bright aquamarine. We had been flying high, now we went down, and as we sank our own shade, dark-blue, floated under us upon the light-blue lake. Here live thousands of Flamingoes, although I do not know how they exist in the brackish water,–surely there are no fish here. At our approach they spread out in large circles and fans, like the rays of a setting sun, like an artful Chinese pattern on silk or porcelain, forming itself and changing, as we looked at it.”
The movie version of Out of Africa (a must!) is about Karen Blixen and is her story. The book is about Africa. Dinesen does not reveal or discuss the particulars of her life, except when necessary to deepen our understanding of the Africa of her heart. Then, only enough is revealed to open the window–but what a view is to be seen through that aperture! A quote from Eudora Welty on the back of the green Vintage edition of the book says it best:
“True to her credo of the storyteller’s story, her tales are…glimpses out of, rather than into, an extraordinary mind.”
So, for a complete immersion into the passionately articulate world of Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen, read the book, watch the movie, and listen to the lovely soundtrack. But I suggest that you read the book slowly, word by word.
Thank you to Phil Douglis for letting me use his photograph of Blixen’s desk, which tells a story in itself. Click on the following links to see more photographs from Blixen’s farm, and to visit Phil Douglis’s “cyberbook of travel photography.”